August 5, 2013

A Reading List For Alex J.

A Young Man Reading - Albert Ranney Chewett
Recently, a friend of mine asked me to make a list of books I would recommend, and I received that request as a compliment, considering that Alex J. (my friend) has great taste in literature (and music, cinema, art et caetera).
So I made an attempt at listing some of the books that touched me, amazed me, upset me and changed me the most. Not all those books are novels, some are written more in the form of an essay.

This exercice brought up the question, ''Why does one enjoy literature''? I believe there is no universal answer to that question, although I believe I have found a partial, or at least satisfactory, answer for myself. When I was in college, one of my English literature teachers told me that he read books for the purpose of ''deepening his understanding of human nature.'' I subscribe to his opinion and believe that literature should not simply be viewed as ''entertainment,'' but also as a means of acquiring a deeper understanding of ourselves, the people around us and the world we live in.

However, since I named this post ''A Reading List,'' and not ''An Essay On Literature, Human Nature And The Universe,'' I will put an end to my reflections and proceed to give the promised list:

Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
1. Notre-Dame de Paris
If you have seen the Disney Movie ''The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,'' please forget all about it, because it is by no means a faithful rendition of the book. Notre-Dame is an ode to Middle Ages Paris in the form of many seemingly isolated stories that ultimately converge in the same direction. It is a story of outcasts, of virtue and corruption.
2. The Last Day of a Condemned Man
This is either a very short novel or a very long short story. It is the diary of a man awaiting the execution of his death sentence and reflecting on life, death and himself. The reader never finds out about the condemned man's identity, social status or crime, but only the thoughts of a man in the face of his own imminent death.

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)
3. Eugénie Grandet
This is the book that really sparked my interest for French literature when I was in primary school. It is a depiction of life in rural France in the 19th century, and the story of a greedy father whose relationships with his wife and daughter are totally controlled by his avarice. Includes a love story, the reason/passion contradiction and the consequences of evil behaviour. 
4. Le Père Goriot
This novel made a strong impression on me by the feeling of indignation it inspires to the reader. Goriot's love for his daughters is blind to the point that he excuses and pardons their cruelty towards him. It is an illustration of ungratefulness at it filthiest and the tragedy of unrequited love.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
5. Pensées
Pensées is a posthumous collection of Pascal's religious and philisophical writings. It is a series of numbered paragraphs elaborating on various and sometimes random subjects (from interpretation in art to the importance of Cleopatras' nose to an exposition of biblical prophecies fulfilled by Jesus Christ). Contains religious theories that greatly influenced modern thought, such as Pascal's Wager. 

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944)
6. The Little Prince
It would be incredibly hard for me to choose what is my favourite book, but if I had to, it would probably be this one (see this blog post). The Little Prince is often wrongly seen as a children's book, whereas it deals with some of the deepest and most delicate questions of life. The Little Prince is a beautifully written book about relationships, true friendship, the simplicity of life and the nature of human attachment.  

Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)
7. The Count of Monte-Cristo
Be prepared for a two-volume epic about an unjust trial, ambitious treachery, imprisonment and an unbelievable jailbreak. Follow the protagonist in his reflections about love and hatred, revenge and forgiveness. Also be prepared for your mind to be blown at the end of the book when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and you figure out the meaning of everything. 


Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
8. A Christmas Carol
A classic I can never get tired of. I read it every year as 'preparation' for Christmas, and it moves me every time. This short book deals with one's mistakes in life, the consequences of one's actions and the possibility of changing one's ways.  

George Orwell (1903-1950)
9. Animal Farm
This book was inspired by the Russian Revolution and the early years of the Soviet Union. Indeed, it shows the disorder resulting from the disappearance of authority (the farmer) within a society of animals. Starting with laudable ideals, the animal government gradually shifts to an unjust regime leading to cruelty and chaos. Makes the reader reflect on justice, totalitarianism and democracy.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)
10. Mere Christianity
Lewis, who taught at Cambridge and Oxford and was one of the finest thinkers of his time, gave a series of talks on BBC radio about Christian faith during the Second World War. He builds his argument on morality, or the laws of nature (thorougly analysed and discussed by Enlightenment philosophers), in explaining the Christian faith. This book, or collection of talks, is an essay based on inferential reasoning, and exposing the essence of Christianity. 

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
11. Heart of Darkness
One of the gems that I had to read in college. Conrad's writing style is unique and impressive considering that English was not his first language. Tells a story of colonialism, imperialism, racism and views on civilization and "savagery.'' The movie Apocalypse Now was inspired by this novel.

John Locke (1632-1904)
12. Second Treatise of Government
I read this political/philosophical essay when I was young and again while writing a thesis on the influence of Englishtenment philosophy on the Declaration of Independence, and was impressed by the quality of Locke's reflections. His views on government, the state, the individual, liberty and private property have had a tremenduous impact on Western thought, especially American philosophy and the Declaration of Independence.

Harper Lee (1926- )
13. To Kill A Mockingbird
The Pulitzer-prize winning TKM is a classic of American literature. It deals with racism and racial inequality in Southern U.S. shortly after the Great Depression. It contrasts the ugliness of racism with the beauty of the quest for justice and the recognition of human dignity and worth.  Timeless and inspiring.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
14. Of Mice and Men
A tragic book dealing with the powerlessness that can come from intellectual and economic limitations, among others. Also emphasises the importance and role of dreams and aspirations, and explores the theme of fate.

Jerry Spinelli (1941- )
15. Milkweed
I found this book on the floor somewhere and that's how I came to read it. It is the story of an orphan living in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, and struggling to find an identity. The narrator gives an innocent and naive outlook on the horrors of war, the Holocaust and the Nazis.

Mark Twain (1835-1920)
16. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
This book is hard to describe or summarise. It is the story of a young boy growing up in Mississippi and an account of his adventures and mishaps. 


Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
17. The Idiot
It is is a long novel centered on a mysterious prince who leaves no one indifferent. Some think he is a genius, some think he is an idiot, and the reader doesn't really know (until the end). The Prince is a strange man, remote from society and asexual. Although he seems fundamentally good, he is influenced by the corrupt world he lives in. The Idiot can be a tedious read at times, since most of the book consists of dialogues that sometimes seem unrelated to the central plot (also unclear at times). However, the last 200 pages, where all the story and enigma unfold, are worth the other 700. 
18. The Brothers Karamazov
This is such a complex and profound novel that it seems unfair and unworty of me to attempt to summarise in a couple of sentences. Its plot develops very slowly and through a series of dialogues, monologues and essays on various themes such as human nature, free will, virtue and vice, asceticism and pleasure. The reader follows the story of Fyodor Karamazov's sons, their actions and reflections. An imposing philosophical work dealing with some of the themes that concern human beings most, and a novel you just can't put down.

Although my list is not exhaustive, I recognise that it is short. The reason for this is that I am still in the process of expanding my knowledge of literature. I can think of so many classics that I have never read.
All are invited to share their literary discoveries with me, and although my time is limited, I will try my best to read most of them!

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